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Apollo is the god of defined limits, of the regular order (patterns in contrast to chaos) that makes reality intelligible to man. (Greek peras = limit English.) Because making the concepts (i.e. rules for using words), which are the defined limits that organize man's thinking, clear is logic's aim in philosophy, and because ethics and metaphysics also have tasks related to order, Apollo is for the Greeks the patron god of philosophy, and the ideal of beauty.

A word of caution: many remarks on this page seem doubtful. I may not understand these historical things, nor the philosophical. [The background of my remarks is my understanding of Socrates, and of Wittgenstein's logic of language.]

Apollo and Philosophy

Query: what does the god mean when through his prophet he claims that no man is wiser than Socrates?

In the Greek bible, if philosophy had a bible, I imagine the god Apollo would speak through his prophets of Socrates' wisdom, and Socrates would have to answer the question: what does God mean by saying that no man is wiser than I am, for I am not wise (Plato, Apology 21b)?

Outline of this page ...

Truth and Apollo

Apollo at Delphi was a purely beneficent power, a direct link between gods and men ... [Apollo] is the God of Light, in whom there is no darkness at all, and so he is the God of Truth. No false word ever falls from his lips. [The poet says that] "all may trust with unshaken faith when he speaks".

Apollo was the God of Truth. Whatever the priestess at Delphi said would happen infallibly came to pass [as unavoidable as "the decrees of fate", and this is illustrated by the story of Oedipus in Sophocles' play. As] seekers for Truth [many pilgrims came to Delphi to question Apollo's oracle there]. (Edith Hamilton, Mythology (1942), i, 1, p. 29-30; v, 2, p. 375)

When Socrates tells the story of Chaerephon's visit to Delphi, where Chaerephon asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates, and Apollo's oracle answered that no one was -- Socrates has to quiet the jurors, saying "I entreat you again, my friends, not to interrupt me with your shouts" (Plato, Apology 21a). It was not only that it might seem that Socrates was boasting (ibid. 20e), but that he called on the authority of the god who spoke only the truth, Apollo whose title was "the Truth-teller" (Mythology ii, 3, p. 164) (in contrast e.g. to "Zeus, the Thunderer" and "Poseidon, the Earth-shaker).

The Pythian Lord of Delphi,
He has a comrade he can trust,
Straightforward, never wandering astray.
It is his mind which knows all things,
Which never touches falsehood, which no one
Or god or mortal can outwit.

(Pindar, circa 518-438 B.C., from his tale of Aesculapius, quoted and, apparently, translated by Hamilton in Mythology vi, 1, p. 413)

Apollo's comrade, i.e. his own mind, knows the truth about all things. It can neither be deceived nor even deceive itself (self-delude).

Apollo's tree is the laurel, into which Daphne was changed as she tried to flee the god, because the Apollo of the myths -- myths of the kind Plato's Euthypro believes (Euthyphro 6e-7a, but 7e) -- is still portrayed as suffering human desires. Another story is that, in order to win her favor, Apollo first allows Priam's daughter Cassandra to truly forecast the outcome of events, but then when she refuses his advances, stops anyone from believing her forecasts.

The myths present other difficulties. When Orestes turns to Apollo's oracle at Delphi, "the Greeks' refuge in time of trouble" (Mythology v, 3, p. 401), the oracle tells the young man that he must avenge his father Agamemnon's death, although that means that Orestes must kill his mother Clytemnestra -- and this despite Agamemnon's sacrifice of Orestes' sister Iphigenia in Aulis, which was the reason Clytemnestra killed her husband, namely to avenge her daughter's death.

And so, is the oracle's ruling just, equitable, for there is neither mercy nor understanding in it? If it is unjust it is not worthy of a god, just as it is not worthy of a god to tell lies (Plato, Apology 21b) or to dally with girls.

Apollo and Seeking to Know

Query: the god who says to question everything.

The god Apollo is the patron of philosophy, and it is the words of Apollo's oracle that set Socrates questioning everyone, to see if anyone is wise. Although Xenophon, unlike Plato, does not make the oracle's words the center of his account, he does present Socrates as teaching his companions "the art of words" -- or logos in Socrates' sense -- for "those who [think they know what they] do not know are misled themselves and mislead others. For this reason he never gave up considering with his companions what any given thing is", and Socrates set them a standard for knowing in philosophy and taught them the method of question and answer and cross-question to find the truth.

Apollo and Limits

Query: Socrates as a follower of Apollo.

Apollo is the god of limits, of the regular order (laws of nature) that makes reality comprehensible (predictable) to man; as self-control or self-limiting -- i.e. not over-reaching oneself because one knows oneself -- makes man's life good.

Making sense of the concepts that organize (because they as often disorganize) man's thinking is the task of logic, just as giving orderly conduct to man's life is the task of ethics, while seeking what is regular (patterned) in reality is metaphysics. That is the relation of Apollo to philosophy.

He is often associated with the higher developments of civilization ... inculcating high moral and religious principles [Herodotus 6.86.15] ... and favoring philosophy (e.g. he was said to be the real father of Plato). ("Apollo", OCD 2e)

I cannot recall where I read, if I read, that Apollo was the god of philosophers (The crow was Apollo's bird, in contrast for example to Athena's owl, Aphrodite's dove, and the vulture of Ares), as he was of music and of the lyre.

The Ionian Apollo (Apollo Didymaeus)

The Ionians who founded Miletus (circa 10th century B.C.) rededicated the ancient temple of Didyma and its oracle to Apollo (Apollo Didymaeus). Miletus was the home of Thales and the Milesian philosophers, philosophy's beginning.

Although the Sophist promised to make the worse appear the better reason, Apollo was the principle god of Abdera, which was the home city of Protagoras. The historian J.B. Bury called the Ionians "flippant and skeptical", as e.g. Xenophanes of Colophon was. Do I understand this? No. Incredulity is contrary to order; it is not the aim of philosophy (Philosophy begins in perplexity; it does not aim to end in skepticism).

Rebellion against arbitrary limits (dogma, custom) is characteristic of Western, philosophical man. The acceptance of limits is done in the spirit of criticism, which is rebellion against the acceptance of anything that has not been questioned (and passed the Socratic tests of reason and experience).

Philosophy both overthrows and imposes limits.

Pythagoras and Apollo (peras)

[Pythagoras' name] itself declares him to have been a servant or prophet of the Pythian. [His] whole philosophy is based on the exaltation of peras, limit, and shows above all things a passionate devotion to form and law.

The universe is a kosmos [the principle of order], and philosophy is a necessity because only by understanding the order of the macrocosm can man hope to imitate it and implant a similar order in the microcosm, becoming kosmios or orderly in his soul.

The impulse to this view came to Pythagoras largely from his discoveries in mathematics, its basis was the conviction that the real and comprehensible nature of things was to be found in proportion and number. [The Pythagoreans thought that maths is the key to unlocking nature's order (Number is the unit and structure of reality, as illustrated by geometric solids).]

Here mathematics combined with music, for much of his thought followed from observing that there was a mathematical ratio between the lengths of string required to produce different notes of the scale at a particular tension. That Apollo was the god of the lyre ... is an obvious reason for Pythagoras to have given him his devotion.

(W.K.C. Guthrie, The Greeks and their Gods, rev. ed. 1954, vii, "Apollo")

Thus peras ("limit") contrasts not only with "unlimited", "formless", but also with chaos, i.e. "disorder", "absence of organization", "unintelligible". In the realm of thought (the human mind) chaos is "percepts without concepts" or, in other words, sense perceptions to which no categories (common names) correspond.

The aim of philosophy

Philosophy seeks, by the natural light of reason alone, to bring definiteness (definition, sense, order) to the nebulous (confusion, nonsense, disorder).

Guthrie writes "... the real and comprehensible nature of things". Well, the comprehensible nature of things, yes, that is a question of logic. But the "real nature of things" is a question for metaphysical speculation: does the order found in reality belong to reality in itself or only in its presentation to the human mind?

Ethics is sentient (Stoic pantheism)

Query: existence of God in philosophy of Epictetus. Christian thought and Epictetus.

There is no argument, I think. That the world is a cosmos (an order in contrast to a chaos) is taken for granted by Epictetus. And the cosmos is identified with God -- and can be identified with God because moral order is sentient (and by 'God' we mean sentience).

Metaphors. God as clock-maker. But the clock-maker is not the clock (A clock-maker does not make himself), and further, the morality pantheism's Clock-maker displays is contrary to the morality of man.

"There is no argument." Maybe that is what is meant by the words 'We hold these truths to be self-evident', that the truth is shown (somehow, I don't know how) by the natural light alone -- i.e. without reasoning.

One fundamental similarity between Christian theism and Stoic pantheism is that in both Stoicism -- Epictetus does not explain why this is -- and Christianity, God's moral order is in man in a state of disorder.

Precepts the Greeks ascribed to Apollo

Most apropos are: "Know thyself" which in this context means "Know thy limits" both as man and as an individual human being, thy limits in both directions, neither over- nor under-reaching thyself, misjudging thine own ability. "Nothing too much" ("nothing in excess"), i.e. nothing too much in either direction, neither exceeding nor under-exceeding thine limits.

Apollo ... is the very embodiment of the Hellenic spirit. Everything that marks off the Greek outlook from that of other people, and in particular from the barbarians who surrounded them -- beauty [excellence, fineness] of every sort, whether of art, music, poetry or youth, sanity and moderation -- are all summed up in Apollo. (Guthrie, The Greeks and their Gods, ii, 4)

Apollo's primary aspect [is] his championship of law [cf. Wittgenstein's "definition of logic" in TLP 6.3] and order ... everything whether in religious or secular life that was brought under rules and regulations. In the same orbit are his famous maxims enjoining limit, moderation and obedience to authority, and condemning excess ["over-reaching"] in all its forms. (vii, p. 203)

Others of the precepts which were inscribed on the fabric of Apollo's temple at Delphi convey ... the spirit that he stood for:

  • Curb thy spirit.
  • Observe the limit.
  • Hate hybris [hubris].
  • Keep a reverent tongue.
  • Fear authority.
  • Bow before the divine.
  • Glory not in strength.
  • Keep woman under rule.

His connection with law and order was not confined to vague maxims. All Greece looked towards him as both the giver and the interpreter of law.... To learn the divine will [Greek law-makers] consulted ... above all the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. (Guthrie, vii)

The Pythian

The oracle at Delphi was called "Pythia" (or "the Pythian priestess"), which name is derived from the ancient name of Delphi. At Delphi Apollo had killed its guardian, a serpent-like monster named "Python", after which Apollo claimed Delphi, founding his oracle there, and Apollo received the name "Pythius".

Epimetheus, Prometheus, and the nature of philosophy

The name 'Epimetheus' is rendered 'Forethought' meaning 'acting before thinking', in contrast to his brother Prometheus, whose name is rendered 'Afterthought' meaning 'acting after thinking'.

Epimetheus' role in the creation of man is told in Plato's Protagoras 320c-322a, where his thoroughgoing thoughtlessness is indeed a disaster for man, as also is the acceptance by Epimetheus -- who "gave no thought" -- of Zeus' poison gift to man, namely Pandora (as told in Hesiod's Works and Days and the Theogony).

Prometheus, who reflects first before acting, is wise in contrast to Epimetheus, the fool, who does not first reflect. Prometheus thinks things all the way through, and this makes Prometheus a symbol of philosophy and of the philosopher. (There are others, as e.g. the Sphinx and the Serpent in the Garden).

Ignorance and Philosophy

Query: it is man's ignorance that makes philosophy possible.

There is no philosophy among the gods because there is no ignorance; there is instead wisdom: the gods know what man longs to know. Man seeks wisdom (philosophizes) when he recognizes his ignorance. That is "the ignorance of the philosopher" -- Socratic ignorance in contrast to "conceited ignorance". Anyone who thinks he knows what he does not know doesn't philosophize.

[Whether we say 'God', 'the god', 'the gods' or, in this context, 'Apollo', makes no difference here. (These are distinctions without differences.) When Plato says that only God is wise (Phaedrus 278d), he is saying what we mean by the word 'God'.]

Query: what does God mean when he says no man is wiser than Socrates?

One meaning that might be given to this is that philosophy begins and ends in ignorance, that the wisdom of Socrates, as that of all men, is worth nothing (Apology 23b).

Query: is Socratic philosophy based on doubts?

In the story in Plato's Apology, Socrates' philosophical mission has its origin in doubt as to the meaning of the words of Apollo's oracle. Socrates asks himself, "What does the god mean? Why does he not use plain language?" How can Socrates, who knows that he is without wisdom, be the wisest of men? (ibid. 21b)

The answer Socrates finds is, not that Socrates alone is the wisest, but that anyone who knows that he himself is without wisdom is the wisest of mankind (ibid. 23b). What is foolish is to be without doubt about whether one knows what one thinks one knows or not (ibid. 21d).

That doubt is what Socrates applies to any claim to knowledge, using the standard that "If anyone knows a thing, he can explain what they know to others" (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1), and Socrates uses his method of cross-questioning any proposed explanation for its clarity and truth until agreement or refutation is reached (ibid. iv, 6, 14-15).

Query: compare and contrast Socrates and the oracle at Delphi.

Contrast: The propositions that issue from the oracle must be accepted as true (Apollo does not tell lies), whereas those of Socrates must be put to the tests of natural reason and experience before they are accepted as true (Apology 21b-c). Compare: Apollo's oracle and Socrates are servants of the god: the god speaks through his oracle, and Socrates pursues the mission he believes Apollo has assigned to him (ibid. 28e, 37e). Contrast: according to the oracle, Socrates is the wisest man; yet according to Socrates, Socrates has no wisdom at all (ibid. 21b).

Query: did Apollo send god to Socrates?

What is the origin of Socrates' inner sign, which he calls a daimon ("demigod"), that warns him against danger (Apology 31d)? Is it a gift sent to him by a god? And by which god and why?

Query: did Socrates seek knowledge?

This question was misdirected by the search engine to the topic "virtue is knowledge" but that link is suggestive nonetheless -- because if Socrates' interest in philosophy is ethics (for which logic was his tool of investigation, whereas he neglected metaphysics), what knowledge is he seeking if not knowledge of the good for man, knowledge which we call 'wisdom'?

Site copyright © September 1998. Please send corrections and criticism of this page to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 20 November 2018 : 2018-11-20 (Original revision 13 November 2016)

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